Death – South Philly native, jazz legend James Mtume dies at 76

Death – Obituary

South Philadelphia native James Mtume, a leading light in the world of jazz and R&B from the 1960’s onward, has died at the age of 75, his family confirmed on Sunday.

Born James Forman, Mtume was the son of famed saxophonist James Heath and was raised in Philadelphia by his mother, Bertha Forman, and pianist James “Hen Gates” Forman. Mtume’s formative years were spent around some of the most talented and innovative names in jazz, from Charlie Parker to Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk, many of whom would spend time at his family home.


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Mtume learned to play piano and percussion at a young age, but also was a talented swimmer who earned an athletic scholarship at Pasadena City College in California. It was in college that he became associated with the US Organization, a Black empowerment group, and received the name Mtume, which means “messenger” in Swahili. He left the organization in 1969, but kept the name that later became synonymous with his R&B group.

Mtume is best-known for the 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit,” a song that has since been sampled frequently by hip-hop artists from The Notorious B.I.G. to Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj. With lead vocals from Mtume bandmate Tawatha Agee, the mid-tempo track became a radio hit and climbed to number one on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart in 1983.

Earlier in his career, Mtume had played alongside greats including Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Herbie Hancock. He also contributed to records from Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbiere and many others.

Mtume often described the fusion of sounds he created with collaborator Reggie Lucas as “sophistifunk,” bringing together elements of soul and jazz in a form of R&B that helped define the smooth, technical sheen of the post-disco period.

Mtume also was a prolific songwriter whose credits include Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get to You” and Stephanie Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” for which he and Lucas won a Grammy Award for Best R&B song in 1981.

In 2019, Mtume gave a TED Talk that examined the influence of music on political and cultural movements, and vice versa, from the 1950’s through the 1980’s.

“Society is the thermostat that sets the temperature,” Mtume said. “Art and artists are the thermometers that reflect it.”

Mtume’s life was honored widely on social media by those who drew inspiration from his wide-ranging career and the wisdom he brought to the evolution of jazz and R&B.

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What Is An Obituary

In national newspapers an obituary (obit for short) is a news article that reports the recent death of a prominent person. Although it tends to focus on positive aspects of the subject’s life this is not always the case. According to Nigel Farndale, the Obituaries Editor of The Times: “Obits should be life affirming rather than gloomy, but they should also be opinionated, leaving the reader with a strong sense of whether the subject lived a good life or bad; whether they were right or wrong in the handling of their public affairs.”

In local newspapers, an obituary may be published for any local resident upon death. A necrology is a register or list of records of the deaths of people related to a particular organization, group or field, which may only contain the sparsest details, or small obituaries. Historical necrologies can be important sources of information.